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Weekly Digest – February 4, 2015

Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel

West Virginia Moves Toward Union-Shop Ban
Taking advantage of Republicans gaining control of the West Virginia State Senate last November, Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael on Jan. 27 introduced a bill called the “Creating Workplace Freedom Act,” which would prohibit requiring workers to join unions in workplaces covered under union contracts. The measure is also backed by the state Chamber of Commerce and the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity. “This is nothing more than government intrusion into the employee-employer relationship. As much as we hear about it, there is no such thing as forced unionism,” said Ken Hall, president of Teamsters Local 175, adding that it “is not going to create a single job.” The Service Employees International Union is planning a rally against the bill at the state capitol in Charleston Feb. 20.
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McDonald’s Workers Charge They Were Fired for Being Black
Ten black McDonald’s workers in Virginia who were fired last May after being told, they “didn’t fit the profile” filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the company and the franchise owner Jan. 22. The suit alleges that managers at three McDonald’s in Clarkesville and South Boston told workers that it was “too dark” in the restaurants and that they “need to get the ghetto out of the store.” “I had no idea what they meant by the right profile until I saw everyone else that they fired as well,” said plaintiff Willie Betts, who was a cook at the South Boston McDonald’s. McDonald’s Corp. argues that it is not responsible for its franchises’ relations with employees, but the complaint contends that it has control over “nearly every aspect of its restaurants’ operations.” Read more

Canada Supreme Court Upholds Workers' Right to Strike
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled Jan. 30 that workers have a constitutional right to strike. It struck down a law enacted by the province of Saskatchewan in 2008 that prohibited workers from striking if they provided an “essential service,” saying it gave them “no meaningful mechanism for resolving bargaining impasses.” “The right to withdraw labour is a universal human right that is essential to ensuring fairness in the collective bargaining process,” said Paul Meinema, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada, the country's largest union. The court gave the Saskatchewan government one year to revise the law. Read more

New Illinois Gov Walks Behind Scott Walker
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner said Feb. 2 that he’d like to see state employees prohibited from going on strike and bargaining over wages, benefits, and pensions. In a memo to legislators, the multimillionaire private-equity investor also said state workers’ pay levels were “unsustainable and unfair to working families, small businesses, and other taxpayers in Illinois.” "It's bizarre and outrageous for Bruce Rauner to suggest that public employees aren't 'working families,'" responded AFSCME Council 31 spokesperson Anders Lindahl. "He's wrong to vilify workers who serve the public, earn middle-class wages, and have a right to a voice through their union.” Read more

Icahn Threatens to Close Casino If Union Wins
Wall Street investor Carl Icahn, the de facto owner of the bankrupt Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in Atlantic City, said Jan. 30 that the casino will close if its main union gets its pensions and health benefits restored in court. The company eliminated those benefits for about 1,100 workers in October, with the approval of a federal bankruptcy judge, and UNITE HERE Local 54 is appealing to the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The National Labor Relations Board filed an amicus brief backing the union Jan. 29, saying that the bankruptcy court had usurped its authority under the National Labor Relations Act. Read more

NLRB Accuses Pittsburgh Hospital of Union-Busting
The National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint Jan. 29 accusing the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center hospital chain of engaging in anti-union tactics, from removing union literature from bulletin boards to enforcing a rule against workers gathering in break rooms for more than 15 minutes before or after their shifts. The Service Employees International Union, which filed the charges with the NLRB, has been trying for years to unionize the about 3,500 non-clinical employees at UPMC, whose more than 20 hospitals make it Pennsylvania’s largest private employer. An NLRB administrative law judge in November found UPMC had engaged in similar unfair labor practices. Read more

Jail Infirmary Workers Raise Alarm on Unsafe Staffing
Health-care workers at Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County Jail, newly organized by the United Steelworkers, contend that understaffing is endangering inmates’ lives. Last year, seven prisoners died in the jail, which holds 2,000. The county privatized health-care services there in 2013, giving the contract to Tennessee-based Corizon, which cut costs by scrimping on medicine and supplies for the infirmary. “It’s disturbing that we’re blamed for poor care, when we don’t have the staffing or processes in place to do it right,” said Sister Barbara Finch, a nun and nurse who was active in organizing for the Steelworkers. She was fired in January 2014 and reinstated in March, after workers ratified the union. Read more

Detroit Man Walks 21 Miles to Low-Wage Job
Since his 1988 Honda broke down a decade ago, James Robertson of Detroit has walked 21 miles five days a week to get to his factory job in the suburb of Rochester Hills. Robertson, 56, spends four hours each way commuting by bus and foot, braving snowdrifts and muggers to get home after 1 a.m. He makes $10.55 an hour, not enough to buy and maintain a car, and the Oakland County suburbs have no regular bus service. "I sleep a lot on the weekend, yes I do," he says. Read more

What the Sharing Economy Takes
What does the “sharing economy” mean? The New Age capitalist philosophy says companies like Uber and Airbnb are “revolutionary,” disrupting outdated business models and building communities of “collaborative consumption.” It’s a nice way to monetize the desperation of people in the post-crisis economy while sounding generous, and to evoke a fantasy of community in an atomized population, economics journalist Doug Henwood responds. Its publicists seek to transform the instability of the post–Great Recession economy into opportunity. You may lack health insurance, sick days, and a pension plan, or even be working for less than minimum wage, but you’re a “micro-entrepreneur.”
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Why It’s Hard to Organize Internet Journalists
Politico labor reporter Mike Elk announced Jan. 26 that he was trying to organize his coworkers into the Newspaper Guild. “The problem with the Internet is that people are on call all day long,” he said. “It becomes tough for workers to put boundaries on overtime…. I think people in the media take jobs way too seriously, and it leads to burnout.” If he succeeded—and so far, no other Politico workers have publicly supported the union—it would be the first successful organizing attempt at a major new media company. Two major problems any such campaign faces are the dramatic decline in journalism jobs, which gives workers far less leverage, and the Internet-age market, in which people are willing to work for exposure in order to build their personal brands. Read more

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